December 18, 2007 / 5:53 PM / 10 years ago

Bush's January Middle East tour seeks to bolster peace bid

<p>President George W. Bush speaks about the economy during a trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 17, 2007.Kevin Lamarque</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush will make his first trip to Israel and the West Bank next month to try to shore up fragile peace efforts despite skepticism about the chances of a deal before he leaves office in 13 months.

Bush will also make stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on his January 8-16 trip to promote broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation after decades of conflict and enmity.

The announcement of his itinerary follows a U.S.-hosted conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to try to forge a peace deal by the end of 2008.

Bush's first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank comes as his room for maneuver is limited by the unpopular Iraq war, now in its fifth year.

His hands-off approach to Middle East peacemaking during almost seven years in office has raised doubts about his newfound commitment. His planned trip to the region appears intended to allay such concerns.

"This visit will follow up on the progress made at Annapolis in helping Israelis and Palestinians to advance their efforts toward peace and achievement of the president's vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and security," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

But she played down the prospect that Bush, scheduled to meet separately with Olmert and Abbas and not to hold a three-way meeting, would engage in detailed negotiations between the two sides on possible concessions.

She insisted instead that Bush could "help facilitate those discussions."

All three leaders -- Bush, Abbas and Olmert -- are politically weak at home, and lingering mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians is making any progress difficult.

SETTLEMENTS

Abbas said on Tuesday that new Israeli settlement activity was posing an obstacle to revived peace efforts.

Plans for new Israeli settlement building this month have drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, and raised fears of widening the rift in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years.

The first round of talks since Annapolis opened in discord last week after Palestinians demanded a halt to Israeli plans to build new homes at a settlement near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.

Abbas' negotiating position is hurt by the fact he effectively rules only in the West Bank while Hamas Islamists control Gaza. For his part, Olmert has seen his popularity sink since the 2006 Lebanon war and his governing coalition is shaky.

After the 44-nation gathering in Annapolis, Bush assured the two leaders the United States would actively engage in peacemaking.

But he has given no sign he is planning the kind of sustained personal involvement he had shunned after his predecessor, Bill Clinton, failed to broker a peace accord in 2000 in the twilight of his presidency.

"What the president's role can be is to help encourage them, to help continue to push on those negotiations," Perino said.

Bush's visits to Arab states is aimed at keeping them involved after applying heavy pressure to get them to the Annapolis conference. Saudi Arabia in particular is considered a linchpin in any broader Arab-Israeli peace process.

Perino said the Middle East tour is intended to "remind the world that this is a moment that has presented itself, and it's time for everyone to seize the opportunity to make sure that the Palestinians and the Israelis are supported."

Bush's planned focus on Gulf Arab states, however, could also be intended to shore up U.S. efforts to offset the growing regional influence of Iran, which Washington is trying to isolate over its nuclear program.

Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Toby Zakaria; Editing by John O'Callaghan

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